Electronic dance music culture often gets thought of as a bit of a European thing. Synth Pop, for example, was heavily dominated by British artists, and for many the words ‘electronic music’ conjure up images of European acts like Kraftwerk, Daft Punk or Jean-Michel Jarre.
Much of modern electronic music has its roots in the US though, both in terms of the gear it’s made with – thanks to US synth titans such as Bob Moog, Dave Smith and Don Buchla – and the genres themselves – House and Techno were both born in the underground clubs of Detroit, New York and Chicago.
This Independence Day weekend, let’s take stock of a handful of the iconic American artists that have helped shape the past 50 years of electronic music. Who have we missed? Who deserves more props? Let us know over on our Facebook page.
Larry Levan & Frankie Knuckles
Two New York natives and contemporaries who, between them, had a huge hand in forming modern dance music as we know it. Across the course of his decade-long residency at Paradise Garage, Levan significantly shaped the art of modern DJing, crafting post-Disco into the foundations of House music. His style was eclectic but drawn together by an emotive feel and Dub-informed focus on bass and groove.
Over in Chicago, meanwhile, Frankie Knuckles was blending Disco, Synth Pop and Rock at the club Warehouse, which would give its name to a distinctive new style of music – House. When he got his hands on his first drum machine, it began a long career in production and remixing that brought us tracks including the likes of the iconic Your Love.
While both have sadly passed, the pair – along with other contemporaries such as Chicago’s Ron Hardy – will long be remembered for their legacy of ushering House music from its underground origins in the gay clubs of Chicago and NYC into the worldwide force it is today.
The ‘Belleville Three’
Named after the suburb of Detroit, the so-called Belleville Three – aka Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – were the pivotal figures in the birth of Detroit Techno. Offering a more stripped-back, machine driven alternative to the Chicago and NYC House sound, the music of Atkins, May and Saunderson was defined by a need to wring maximum potential out of the gear at hand, most notably Roland’s now-classic drum machines. Between them, the three artists have been responsible for countless classics via a long list of aliases and collaborations.
The 1968 album Switched-On Bach was hugely influential in shaping the wider perception of synthesized music, placing the Moog instruments Carlos helped to create into a ‘classical’ context and demonstrating the musical potential of that new technology.
Carlos would go on to work prominently with Stanley Kubrick, and create scores for the likes of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining that stand up to this day as some of the most important works of electronic soundtrack composition.
‘Synth’ bands are generally thought of as very much a British thing, but New Wave outfit Devo managed to create a distinctly American take on the sound informed by surrealist humor and discordant post-Punk melodies.
Founding member and keyboardist Mothersbaurgh deserves his place here equally for his extra-circular activities though. Since the early 90s he has been a prolific composer for TV, film and video games. From The Rugrats to much of Wes Anderson’s output, Mothersbaugh has been sneaking idiosyncratic synth melodies into our everyday lives for nearly three decades. A notable synth aficionado, circuit bender and Moog Model D fanatic, Mothersbaugh is someone inextricably tied to American synthesizer culture.
There’s a great tradition within dance music of genres being created by misusing technology, and there’s probably no better example of this than the birth of Acid House. Roland’s TB-303 was originally designed as a bass player-replacing accompaniment for traditional ‘bands’, but in the hands of Spanky and DJ Pierre it became the squelching, resonant centerpiece of their seminal Acid Tracks. A few spins of this new, unique sound at Ron Hardy’s Music Box was all it took to birth a genre of dance music that thrives to this day.
Moby remains a divisive figure amongst dance music aficionados. There’s no question though that his career defining album, Play, brought sampled music to the masses in the way few other musicians have. Spawning countless sync deals and mass sales worldwide, it turned Moby into one the first ‘rockstar producers’.
It also bought questions about sampling culture into the mainstream – with some accusing Moby of leaning heavily on the Blues musician he sampled for some of the album’s iconic hooks. Whatever your take, there's little doubting the influence the album had on the mainstream perception of what an electronic music producer is – and can be.
Rightly lauded as one of America’s great synth pioneers, Ciani has been one of the most prominent proponents of Don Buchla’s synth designs. With their more leftfield approach to sound creation, control and modulation, Buchla’s ‘West Coast’ approach goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the often ethereal, atmospheric quality of Ciani’s music. As a musician, sound designer and public figure, Ciani has been a major force for good in the realm of synthesized sounds throughout her career.
While many may still baulk at the idea of listing Skrillex alongside the likes of Frankie Knuckles, it would be hard to deny the impact that Sonny Moore has had on American dance music over the past decade.
With the sound he created on his early MySpace-era EPs, Moore fused influence from UK dance music sounds such as Dubstep with a hard and energetic edge adopted from his own roots in Metal and Post-Hardcore. The resulting strain of dance music, with its complex synth sounds, hard-hitting 'drops' and distinctive ‘wobbles’ kick-started the modern EDM boom and inspired legions of imitators.